Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The New Mutants

A little more than a month since my last movie in a theater, which was longer than I expected, even though it's hard to enthusiastically go to the movies right now. I'm probably going to pick the pace up a little, although hopefully not so much that I stop being careful. It would probably be different if there were places open that I can easily walk to (although I might give the hike to Kendall a shot as things cool off, especially if I can find a good reason to stop and recharge along the way).

Still, this is weird:

That shot wasn't taken as I left, but as I entered. Empty lobby, shut down concession stand, because apparently that's how we're rolling in Massachusetts. I brought a soda and a straw from home, slipping the latter under my mask without uncovering more than a corner at a time, but that's uncomfortable and gets me thinking about the process and screwing up. I'll probably look elsewhere for a pre-movie snack next time.

Anyway, that sight is weird and it kind of makes me wonder how this whole situation is working. It's fairly common knowledge that theaters make most of their money by marking up cheap things like popcorn and soda syrup to sell to their captive audience, and without that, how are they making money by being open? There were five of us in the audience, paying $14 a seat. Presume that's typical - $70. 19 screens - $1330. Maybe they're getting the same numbers for two shows a day, even once you figure in matinee prices and weekends - $2660. I think I saw four or five employees there, so they're probably making payroll on a daily basis, but how can they possibly be paying rent? It just can't be possible. Best I can figure is that while theaters could probably get a break on their expenses while they weren't allowed to open, now that they've got the option, they can't cite anything keeping them from being open (other than good sense) to their partners, and basically have to do this in order to not make money, but lose it less quickly.

That's a heck of a thing, and I kind of wish that I could be using this as an excuse for supporting local small businesses rather than nationwide chains.

Shame, because The New Mutants is actually pretty decent, and I've been growing fonder of the characters because Jonathan Hickman has been using the characters in his Avengers and X-Men runs in the comics.

The New Mutants

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 September 2020 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

The New Mutants has been a punchline or running gag for the past couple of years as it got pushed down the schedule as much as a result of things well outside filmmakers Josh Boone's control as the movie's own faults, from another movie being delayed to one studio consuming another and pushing the whole slate out months until, finally, the new studio decided this was an appropriate bone to throw theaters in the middle of the pandemic (after deciding not to do the sort of reshoots that probably would have helped because the young cast members could no longer pass for teenagers). It is, by and large, much better than its cursed path would indicate, but one can certainly see why it was always the thing that got pushed back while other movies were given priority.

It starts in apocalyptic fashion, with Cherokee teenager Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) being roused from bed by her father (Adam Beach) and told to flee from a disaster befalling the reservation. Dani is seemingly the only survivor, waking up chained to a hospital bed, with Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga) telling her that she is a mutant, like the X-Men, with her as-yet-unknown power likely the reason she survived. Reyes appears to be the only staff at this facility for new mutants, though there are four other teenagers there - sweet Scottish girl Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Kentucky coal miner's kid Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), Brazilian rich kid Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), and unstable Russian ice queen Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy). But are they alone? Something appears to be dredging up their worst fears, which is pretty dangerous even when the traumatized kids in question don't have superpowers that often initially manifested in destructive fashion.

The idea of doing The New Mutants as a horror film is pretty strong - not only had Twentieth Century Fox recently been having better luck with the mutant characters from Marvel comics when they strayed from conventional superheroes, but that's the way that this particular bit of the source material leaned anyway - but the execution is often missing something. The tight budget and cast of relative unknowns is likely what gave Boone the freedom to do something a little different, but the first half of the film often feels a little timid; there's little chance for the characters to play with their powers so that they're familiar by the action starts or a reflection of their personalities. It's often flat get-to-know you material as well, Boone and co-writer Knate Lee seemingly not having an in for anyone but Dani and maybe Rahne, despite Berto and Sam having fun odd-couple potential based on the comics and Illyana being the sort of fun mean girl that an actress as good as Taylor-Joy can do a lot with. It feels like a slasher film that didn't have the budget for a few extra characters to kill off along the way, just marking time to get to the finale.

That finale is fun, though, embracing the comic book lunacy that had been seeping its way into the movie from the start, making good use of both the hoarded effects budget and the idea that these teens are still messed up even if they're having a breakthrough. The special effects probably wouldn't have been completely convincing two years ago, but it works for this movie, embracing the stylization of someone like Mike Mignola or original New Mutants artist Bill Sienkiewicz rather than something more photo-realistic. It's a natural build on how the teens spend most of the movie in a seeming limbo between the 1990s and near future, just a step or two away from reality even controlling for being in an X-men story.

And if they didn't have the money for some extra bodies, it's at least in part because, a couple characters with notably lighter skin tones than they have in the comics aside, it's an extremely well-cast group. Blu Hunt settles into the center of the movie well, never receding even when events have Dani not often able to act on her own, and she pairs well with Maisie Williams as Rahne, even if their initial scenes together seem clunky more from unimaginative dialogue than teenage angst. Charlie Heaton and Henry Zaga are both fun in their roles, with Heaton seeming to go kind of big as Sam although maybe that's just because this sort of film doesn't often include folks with Sam's background. Anya Taylor-Joy has solidified herself as a rising star since making this, and it's not hard to see why; not only is she the one who is clearly having the most fun as the often manic, bitchy Illyana, but she's able to make a moment late in the movie where Illyana is called on to demonstrate a lot of self-awareness work better than it has any right to.

It's a group that a viewer could easily see carrying more movies if this one had traveled a less rocky road to theaters, especially if a budget boost for sequels gave Boone a little more room to stretch. It's a bummer we won't get that, and that they have to spend so much of this movie treading water until the good stuff starts; The New Mutants seems like it has everything it needs to succeed except luck.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, September 25, 2020

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 25 September 2020 - 1 October 2020

Looks like Apple Fresh Pond and Icon in the Seaport have shut down for another little while - probably until James Bond and maybe Soul shows up in November, because a whole bunch more has been pushed off to later. All those delays are leaving things a little weird at the multiplexes.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre keeps things moving in their virtual offerings, offering up The Artist's Wife with Lena Olin as the title character dealing with the suddenly worsening dementia of her husband (Bruce Dern), who had been planning one final show. They also get Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, a documentary about the famed neurologist, which will also feature a Q&A with filmmaker Ric Burns and others on Wednesday evening. They also have a re-release of RBG, with the proceeds going to the ACLU Women's Rights Project, and Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President moving to their virtual room after ending its run at the Kendall (something I figure will probably be just a thing movies do even after we're all going outside). Chuck Berry, Killer of Sheep, Sibyl, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, and From Controversy to Cure are also still playing.

    With October just around the corner, they step up on their commitment to the spooky, starting with Vertigo drive-in shows at the Medfield State Hospital this weekend (Saturday is sold out, but there are still tickets for Friday and Sunday) and Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 in the virtual room through Sunday. They also have their first of a month full of horror-themed Coolidge Education seminars on Thursday with critic Bilge Ebiri talking about The Shining (find it here or pick up the spiffy new 4K disc).
  • The Brattle Theatre teams with partners this weekend, as Movie Night has another trio of online streamings of Feels Good Man, each with Q&As hosted by a different moderator (note that Saturday's is pretty late, so you'd be watching it with west-coasters), while 36 Cinemas has Shaolin vs Lama with commentary from RZA, Dan Halsted, and Mustafa Shaikh on Saturday night. They also continue to stream Faust, Vinyl Nation, The Hole, Ghost Tropic, and Son of the White Mare.

    They're also having an eccentric fund-raising contest with their DIY Poster Contest - recreate any movie poster in your home, snap a picture, and send it in by Thursday. Judging will begin next week with the public making donations to support their favorites.
  • The week's biggest new release might be Kajillionaire, the new one from Miranda July about a family of con-artists (Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Evan Rachel Wood) who wind up with anew member and find everything thrown off. It's at Landmark Theatres Kendall Square and Embassy, Boston Common, and South Bay.

    Both Landmark cinemas and Boston Common also pick up RBG (with Chestnut Hill going with On the Basis of Sex), with the Kendall supplanting it with a pre-Netflix run of Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 while the Embassy has Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles (the latter may only be open weekends at this point).
  • Richard Jenkins is having a week, starring in The Last Shift as well as Kajillionaire, this time around playing a senior working at a fast food spot who is having an unusual last day on the job. It's at Boston Common, Fenway, Chestnut Hill, and Revere.

    It's also a big week for re-issues (as I figure many will be), with Disney giving The Empire Strikes Back its second push this year at Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Arsenal Yards, and Revere; Funmation pushes a new 4K restoration of Akira at the Kendall, Boston Common (4K projection), . Boston Common and South Bay start a series of DreamWorks Part 1s with Madagascar, while Fenway has matinees of The Secret Lives of Pets, and Revere goes with Space Jam. Revere's weekday specials include Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise on Monday and The First Wives Club on Tuesday, with Hocus Pocus starting a Halloween run there and at Chestnut Hill on Thursday. South Bay has Then Came You, a romantic comedy with Kathie Lee Gifford (who also wrote it) and Craig Ferguson about a widow who meets a new (but engaged) man while scattering her husband's ashes, on Wednesday evening
  • I wouldn't bet against the box-office champ this week being Break the Silence: The Movie, the latest documentary/concert piece to feature South Korean supergroup BTS, which has a metric ton of showtimes at Boston Common, Fenway, Revere. South Korea's Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula hangs around for a show or two per day at Boston Common and Revere.

    The new Chinese import at Boston Common is Leap, which looks like a crowd-pleaser about the PRC's Women's volleyball team making the Olympics, featuring Gong Li and Bo Huang (I think it's a big Golden Week release). The Eight Hundred also continues at Boston Common.
  • The West Newton Cinema appears to be either down to Friday and Saturday or just not announcing showtimes very far in advance, but they also pick up RBG and add The Maltese Falcon to their classics rotation, with Citizen Kane, Tenet, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Saturday), The Burnt Orange Heresy, and Casablanca (Friday) on their other screens. They still list curbside popcorn pick-up as available on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
  • The Regent Theatre now says that screenings of this year's Manhattan Short Film Festival block will be limited to 25, with this week's on Wednesday. They also stream documentaries The Beatles in India, Chet's Last Call, and We Are Many, as well as Jimi Hendrix multimedia presentation "Starting Through Zero", at least through Wednesday, with another musical doc, Herb Alpert Is… either livestreaming or generally available to rent at 8pm Thursday. Jimmy Tingle will be doing a live-streamed fundraising show with no guests in the theater on Sunday afternoon, with a new band's show replacing "Go Now!" on Tuesday.
  • The Bright Lights at Home show on Thursday is Bedlam, which focuses on the crisis in the care of people who are severely mentally ill in the United States. It livestreams at 7pm with a conversation with director Kenneth Rosenberg and producer Peter Miller afterward, presented by the Roxbury International Film Festival, Independent Film Festival Boston, and A HREF="">Boston Jewish Film/ReelAbilities.

    Most of the Roxbury International Film Festival - which starts on Wednesday, runs through Monday 5 October, and focuses on films by/for/about people of color - looks to be streaming through The Museum of Fine Arts, including opening night films The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show and A Knight's Tour. The MFA's site lists "suggested screening times to sync up with the post-film Q&As at RoxFilm's site, but there's no indication on the festival site that they can be watched later.
  • Boston Latino International Film Festival and
    The Boston Film Festival
    both run their virtual festivals through Sunday.
  • Still doesn't look like anyone is at The Somerville Theatre to update their virtual screening room slate, which still shows The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, Pahokee, and Alice; The Capitol is open for ice cream and snacks, but I don't know if anyone is paying attention to their virtual theater, which still lists the "One Small Step" shorts, the Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time.
  • The Brattle, the Coolidge, West Newton, and now The Lexington Venue are all offering relatively reasonable rentals for groups of up to 20; information on rates, available slots, and what the rules on concessions and masking are are either on their websites (which often include other fundraising links) or by contacting them directly.

I'm feeling antsy and may finally hit a few sparsely populated theaters, especially once the Red Sox season comes to its merciful end on Sunday. As always, write to your representatives via Save Your Cinema to hopefully encourage Congress to help the exhibition business survive. Also, Nightstream has announced their line-up, including feature and short films curated by the good people at The Boston Underground Film Festival.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Fantasia 2020.14 (and NYAFF 2020.01): Legally Declared Dead, A Witness Out of the Blue, I WeirDO, Ròm, Chasing Dream, and 12 Hour Shift

I thought I was done after "Day 12", but just as I was wrapping up (and getting to move onto the New York Asian Film Festival's online event) I got an email from Hong Kong with a screener link for closing night film Legally Declared Dead, and, hey, I get it - I didn't ask until almost the end of the festival, it's a 12-hour time difference, and Hong Kongers have other things to be worried about. And, hey, it was one of the entries in the NYAFF line-up that was geo-locked to New York, so it worked out.

As for NYAFF, that was an interesting situation. It overlapped with Fantasia (and I opted to start with the stuff that was in both slates), so I knew I was going to only get half of what I could from my pass, and even before everything got postponed and went virtual this year, I was kind of curious how it would change now that it was a separate entity from Subway Cinema, who were the guys I had a sense of. I don't know that it changed too much, in terms of what they selected, but I'm curious what it would have been like in Lincoln Center. Subway Cinema has a freewheeling personality, and I don't know what the new crew would be like. Maybe next year.

This year, they went virtual, and decided to do it via the Smart Cinema platform, which is mobile-only, so to watch it on my TV, I had to have it bounce from the cable modem/router to my phone, and then cast it to the Roku, which means bouncing it back to the router, which sent it to the Roku, and, I dunno, it seems to me like you could just have a Roku app (or even just something I could use on a laptop that I could connect to the receiver via HDMI), use ⅓ the bandwidth in the apartment, and maybe get better quality.

There were other issues with it as well - for whatever reason, the controls would keep popping up on my phone's screen and get streamed to the TV, which was irritating, and while the first thing I streamed, A Witness Out of the Blue, came through okay, I started getting some nasty buffering during I WeirdDO later that night. It got so brutally bad during Ròm that I couldn't really say it was like watching a movie, it was so chopped up, the 78-minute film taking at least 3 hours to watch.. It was better during Chasing Dream, but it wasn't until after watching Johnnie To's movie that I figured out to use the cache button on the app, let that get to 100%, and then start the movie. The app is basically built for the Chinese market with the "USA" version really aimed at expats and Chinese-American users, so it was pretty unintuitive for my basically monolingual self. I've got a coupon for another movie after my email to customer service, but I don't know that I'll use it. The selection isn't great and it makes the phone run hot and drain the battery.

Still, the movies in this first group were by and large pretty good; I'm hoping Chasing Dream gets some kind of Region A release, if not a 4K one, so that I can really see it properly; I'm loving Johnnie To's big, flashy period, even if I got to know his work through the gritty crime stuff. I figured that I was done with Fantasia at that point, but two weeks after the festival ended, I got an email saying I had a screener for 12 Hour Shift. It didn't say it was a response to my request, so for all I know Magnolia may just be shooting them out all over or the website that hosted it might be doing a "you reviewed Class Action Park, so…" thing. Dunno. I assume it got to me as part of Fantasia, but I don't really know. 2020's weird.

Legally Declared Dead

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 September 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

Steve Yuen Kim-Wai's Legally Declared Dead is one of those thrillers that is chock-full of ridiculous things and occasionally looks like there Kwai could have put in more, if he'd felt like it, but he's got just enough sense to recognize where the point of diminishing returns is. It's a nutty movie, and probably a B-movie under most conditions, but it got to hit screens in Hong Kong and the genre festival circuit when neither China nor the West was releasing much of anything. It's more than enough fun for those circumstances and will probably hold up well enough afterward.

It starts by introducing Yip Wing-Shun (Carlos Chan Ka-Lok), a young salesman for an insurance brokerage who endeavors to be honest but frequently finds himself awkwardly explaining that he is only a middle-man. He's requested for an on-site meeting by Chu Chung-Tak (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), who shows up gruff and barely talks to Wing-Shun, leading him through the rickety house in the New Territories until they come upon Chu's son hanging from the ceiling. It is obviously fishy as hell - in Hong Kong, insurance can pay out for a suicide after thirteen months, Chu has gambling debts, and it is just one week past that - but the investigating detective (Fire Lee Ka-Wing) can't prove anything. It gets under Wing-Shun's skin, in part because his brother committed suicide when they were the boy's age, so he sets out to make sure that Chu's wife Shum Chi-Ling (Karena Lam Ka-Yan) isn't the next victim. Girlfriend Man Wai-Yee (Kathy Yuen Ka-Yee), a psychology grad student, says this probably isn't healthy, but her thesis advisor Kam Ching-Sek (Kiu Kai-Chi) is eager to prove a point about the "criminal personality".

There's a twist or two coming up later, but Yuen sets it up in such a way that the main one is not only revealed fairly early, but Wing-Shun looks kind of dumb for missing . That's usually frustrating, but it works here because, without getting too heavy-handed about it, Yuen has a pretty reasonable idea of how regular people actually interact with crime - most criminals are pretty dumb, but most would-be amateur sleuths aren't as clever as they think, and the people for whom this is their job (whether insurance company, detective, or gangster) are punching a clock and know that it's not cost-effective to chase down every hunch. That there are no criminal masterminds or super-sleuths doesn't necessarily lead to arch, Coen-like absurdity, but it doesn't lead to a clever game of cat-and-mouse either - some people may be awful and some may care too much, but Yuen does a smart job of putting things in a place where one doesn't feel disappointed when a character doesn't do the smart or logical thing in a situation.

The fact of this often has the movie feeling like it's a bit upside-down. Wing-Shun is obviously the protagonist, but it's not surprising that Anthony Wong and Karena Lam get billed first; they're more established stars and they play more colorful characters. The fun thing about what Wong and Lam are up to is that, given their profile and the genre and the billing, the viewer is likely to be on the lookout for a late dropping of the mask, but Yuen has them around with no reason to pretend enough that the audience has to be ready to accept them at face value and see how much life gets breathed into the pair. This doesn't make Carlos Chan boring in comparison; he and Yuen nail how Yip Wing-Shun is earnest and righteous in his quest despite doggedly barking up the wrong tree to the point where it's almost funny, but the fact that he never actually crosses that line is what makes in poignant.

Yuen is at his best when he keeps things sharp - there's a sequence where Catherine Chow Ka-Yee appears as the woman who sold Chi-Ling and Chung-Tak their original insurance policy that sleekly shows her being somewhat amoral without making her a villain, and aside from being a nifty and useful scene on its own, it does a great job of defining Wing-Shun as not that sort of person, for better or worse. Things are less steady when Yuen goes for broader horror-movie villainy; there is often fun in the last stretch, but one can see a character ping-ponging between being clever on the one hand and too nutty or impulsive to succeed on the other several times a scene.

It leads to a capper that is as split as the rest of the movie - on one side, stark in how a character is portrayed as destroyed by the mess they wandered into, but on the other, making one want to rewind to see if a character last seen thirty seconds earlier lived, died, or had some sort of massive change of heart which is understandable if not necessarily warranted. But, then, how else should it end? Legally Declared Dead is a jumble of things that play as 75% "life is jumbled and messy" and 25% "this stretches belief", and maybe it just means that it fits these times.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Fan zui xian chang (A Witness Out of the Blue)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 September 2020 in Jay's Living Room (New York Asian Film Festival, Smart Cinema cast to Roku)

It is entirely fair to want more of the parrot in A Witness Out of the Blue; it's the hook in the opening scene and the focus of the opening credits, and probably what you'd bring up when describing the movie to someone else. The good news is that even if the movie doesn't have as many parrot-related shenanigans as one might hope, it's a nicely twisty little mystery that does a bit of everything, to the point where it's almost too much.

The crime is the murder of Homer Tsui (Deep Ng Ho-Hong), and though it should be open-and-shut for detective Larry Lam (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung) and his pattern Charmaine (Cherry Ngan Cheuk-Ling) - Tsui was part of a crew that robbed a jewelry shop three months earlier and ringleader Seang Wong (Louis Koo Tin-Lok) was seen leaving the room - the only actual witness to the crime is Tsui's parrot. Lam would investigate this, and according to his captain Yip Sau-Ching (Philip Keung Hiu-Man), that sort of thing is why Lam's colleagues nicknamed him "Garbage". Yip is laser-focused on Wong because they have a long history right up to one of Yip's undercovers being killed in the robbery. The thing is, Wong isn't particularly behaving like a guilty man but more like someone trying to solve the crime on his own, subletting a nearby room from half-blind Joy (Jessica Hester) and poking around, leading Lam to look at other suspects, from accomplices Clark Auyeung (Sam Lee Chan-Sam) and "Redhead" (Ling Man-Lung); to butcher Bull Yiu (Patrick Tam Yiu-Man), whose mother had a heart attack during the robbery, shop employee Sandy Yeung (Fiona Sit hoi-Kei), who sustained a spinal injury, and boyfriend Tony Ho (Andy On Chi-Kit), a guard at the shop; to the captain himself.

There's also a subplot about Lam being in hock to a loan shark (Evergreen Mak Cheung-Ching) because he's built a cat sanctuary on top of an apartment building, and then there are the three elderly flatmates with whom Joy shares her apartment. It's kind of a lot, and while a fair amount is not necessary, that's part and parcel of it being a mystery; something has to be explained away, something outside the main plot has to give a character an idea that connects the dots, and so on. There are times when the clutter gets to be just a bit much - a character exits off-screen in such a way that a viewer might wonder if he's meant to actually be dead, for instance, and for all that the parrot is a lot of fun, writer/director Andrew Fung Chih-Chiang doesn't find a way to keep him at the center.

What he does manage is to build something that is both a serious crime movie and a breezy mystery, often more tilted toward the former, a bit surprising considering that he has spent much of his career writing broad comedies with Stephen Chow. A large part of what makes the blend work is the way that each of the three leads pushes at the expected characterizations: None of them are actually playing their characters as funny, but they all seem to be pushing at the edge of where they're played straight: Louis Koo, in particular, plays Wong as almost too intense, such that it initially seems like he's an action-movie villain who has wandered into this mystery by accident, but the exaggerated gruffness isn't a put-on or quite a poke at the trope. Koo seems to be hitting a narrow target and doing it better than when he's trying to play it entirely straight. It's a neat contrast to Louis Cheung, whose Larry isn't exactly hapless but does tend to be sloppy and distracted, and when it comes time for cops-and-robbers stuff, he almost always gets outclassed. Meanwhile, Philip Keung is the mirror image of Louis Koo as Yip Sau-Ching - exaggeratedly intense, but not quite to the point of parody.

Knowing what he's got going on with these different genres means Fung can be clever about how he switches things around, with a couple of eyebrow-raising moments as things are suddenly more high-stakes than they appeared or being able to find a laugh in every moment when Lam confronts Wong or in Wong's awkward interplay with a new sidekick. He mostly avoids things getting shaky toward the end, when Lam's got to actually solve the case and the film's got to find a satisfying way for things to end with Wong, and he probably could have done a lot more with Cherry Ngan's Charmaine (and, really, all the women in the film).

A Witness Out of the Blue isn't quite the light mystery-comedy that it looks like, but it's good enough that this won't necessarily be a problem for very long. Yes, I would have liked more with the parrot (and maybe less with bugs), but there's a pretty decent movie here if you enjoy it for what it is rather than what it looks like.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Guai Tai (I WeirDO)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 September 2020 in Jay's Living Room (New York Asian Film Festival, Smart Cinema cast to Roku)

The screwy capitalization/punctuation of I WeirDO feels like it's something that should get under the skin of its main characters, both dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I wonder if the Chinese title ("Guai Tai") gets that across. I kind of hope not; this is a pretty good movie despite filmmaker Liao Ming-Yi's tendency to seemingly go for the gimmick on both ends, and that shouldn't be overwhelmed by the way it tries to get cute.

Not that the pair Liao introduces the audience to aren't cute already. Chen Po-Ching (Austin Lin Po-Hung), who has mysophobia as a main symptom of his OCD, only leaves his house once a month to do his shopping, see his doctor, etc. That routine is disrupted when his usual grocery store is closed for refurbishment, and when taking the train to the next-nearest one, he's surprised to see someone else in the same raincoat/mask/gloves/boots combo, who goes to the same supermarket and also loads up on cleaning products. She's Chen Ching (Nikki Hsieh Hsin-Ying) - no relation; Chen is just a fairly common name in Taiwan - and her symptoms are similar, but she also develops a rash when outdoors for too long and feels compelled to steal something every day. They understand and like each other, and it turns out they complement each other in ways beyond that; soon they're living and working together. What could ruin that?

That'd be telling, but it's a big enough shift that the movie's first trick can fall by the wayside just as it's starting to get tiresome: Though a fair number of features have been shot on phones (this one claims to be the first in Asia), few have done so with the phone held vertically as is initially the case here. It's a tricky thing to finagle - for all that it can highlight Po-Ching and Ching's lives as constricted, that frame is human-shaped enough that it is natural to fill the frame with an actor and as a result not see how they fit into their background, with the alternative a lot of empty space on an already constricted screen. Fortunately, it's composed well and this lasts just long enough to click in the viewer's mind as this film's normal, and that means that when Liao switches to something more conventional, the switch is jarring for a second but then settles into something that, on the one hand, is more comfortable for the audience to interpret, but on the other carries through as always being different from how the film started.

The overall mood of the film seems to change as well. The opening portion of the film is filled with bright, solid colors, the precise positioning and arrangement a by-product of their OCD but also pleasing to look at, with the film never downplaying that these two have genuine mental-health issues, but allowing them to have enough control over their lives to come off as eccentric, functional within their limits. Lin Po-Hung and Nikki Hsieh do a nice job of capturing how the two are socially maladroit while still giving the audience a sense of who they are beyond that fact. There's a certain obligatory practicality in how they pair up that the audience is meant to recognize, but they and Liao do nifty work in nudging them toward the point where their relief to find someone who understands them goes from something that might blind them to other issues to the basis for a solid relationship. When things change, the environments seem more ordinary. Not drab, exactly, but out of their control, which highlights the precarity of the cocoon they've built for themselves.

It ties into how the latter part of the movie seems to lose it way at times, both Lin and Hsieh are always believable in the moment, even as their characters' priorities shift, but the fact that Chen Ching in particular is so solitary means that that a lot of what's in her head comes out as narration. A lot of things that happen to push things forward occur off-screen, and though it's certainly not uncommon for people to not put in enough effort to make things work, there's a pretty long stretch where the audience can get impatient with these people not talking honestly even if it now being hard to communicate is the point. It wobbles a bit more at the very end, where Liao makes it fairly clear that things are being driven as much out of the characters' fears as their actual intentions, but in such a way that the audience and characters don't have time to work through that at all, so it can come off as a game.

That may be saying too much, but it's hard to talk about I WeirDO without talking about the whole thing, and that's in many ways a strength - it's made with purpose and the finale is a crucial part of the film. It's not always a complete success, but it is nevertheless a movie that makes a good impression and gets better as it lingers in one's mind afterward.

Full review at eFilmCritic


N/A (out of four)
Seen 6 September 2020 in Jay's Living Room (New York Asian Film Festival, Smart Cinema cast to Roku)

I feel like I can't say a whole lot about Ròm, because while this isn't as much a movie driven by a relentless pace as I expected, the experience of watching it was just so elongated and stuttery that it's almost impossible for me to talk about it in terms of a movie that has any sort of momentum. Just a mess all around as an experience that kept it from feeling like a movie.

Hopefully I'll get the chance to watch it again, because Tran Anh Khoa is darn impressive as the title character, as is Nguyen Phan Anh Tu as his rival Phuc, both similar types of hardscrabble kids (though quite distinct), vacillating between friendly and fierce backstabbing rivalry. There are stories swirling around them that feel like they could really tie into big themes about how life in Ho Chi Minh City (or anywhere) is a gamble, sometimes with everything at risk, and how the individuals making these bets are risking everything with all the seemingly small, local concerns tied together behind the scenes. There's a lot going on and the tangled maze of the city becomes dizzying though it's not entirely impossible to find one's way through.

Like I said, I'm awful curious to see it properly.

Chihuo Quan Wang (Chasing Dream)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 September 2020 in Jay's Living Room (New York Asian Film Festival, Smart Cinema cast to Roku)

Johnnie To no longer cranks out movies at the same two-a-year clip that he maintained from the time he started directing features in the late 1980s until about 2012, but it doesn't feel right to say that he's slowed down - previous film Three was a nifty little thriller with a rocket-propelled finale, and Office was a star-studded 3D musical drama set in a stunning open set, both ambitious in their own ways. His latest has similar no-holding-back energy - it's likes someone decided Rocky and A Star Is Born needed to be mashed-up into a romantic comedy and To was the guy to make sure they fit absolutely everything in.

On the one hand, it's the story of Tiger (Jacky Heung Cho), an up-and-coming mixed-martial-artist tagged with a "gluttonous boxer" gimmick, but it starts with ring girl Cuckoo Du (Wang Keru) showing up late. Tiger doesn't mind - he recognizes her as the granddaughter of the owner of a noodle shop back in his hometown - but sponsor/manager Gao Qiang (Chen Bin) also recognizes her, as someone who owes his debt-collection business a lot of money. Tiger convinces Gao to let him deal with her, but soon he's getting yanked into her deal: She says her debt was run up by ex-boyfriend Qu Fengfeng (Ma Xiaohui), who also stole her songs and ditched her once he started to become a big pop idol. Now he's one of the hosts of talent-search show Perfect Diva, and Cuckoo fully intends to make it onto the show and rip him a new one even if she doesn't win.

There's usually a section in movies like this where the singer is refining her craft, done as a sort of montage, with time clearly passing over the course of five minutes or so. That's not the pace that To and his team of writers are looking to set, though, so instead this happens over the course of a day, as Cuckoo goes to her first audition, blows it spectacularly, gets some bad advice from Tiger about what went wrong and then cajoles him into driving him to the Perfect Diva audition happening in the next city, and again and again until it's got to be pushing midnight. It's brilliant in a lot of ways - it lets the audience actually see Cuckoo adapting, rather than just taking the progression for granted as an obligatory thing to be skipped over, it gets Cuckoo's timeline in sync with Tiger's, and it undercuts any sort of expectation one might have of earnest solemnity right away. Cuckoo starts out as hilariously terrible on stage, and Tiger is constantly wrong and ridiculous as he tries to encourage her, and yet, the cast and crew are able to sell that Cuckoo does, in fact, have the raw talent even if she lacks the instincts while Tiger quite clearly has a great big honest heart even if he has clearly already taken way too many blows to the head.

It's not entirely surprising that Cuckoo's quest becomes the thing that drives the movie after that, to the point where the film seems eager to jettison the fighting: For all that Tiger isn't that bright, he's not stupidly stubborn about continuing to fight after being told that he's probably two or three matches away from glaucoma, Parkinson's, and more; that hot pot restaurant he talked about opening after retirement starts to sound pretty good. Sure, there's a certain inevitability to how he'll eventually have a final climactic match - though Master Ma Qing (Shao Bing) looks down on MMA as a corruption of pure, beautiful boxing, Tiger respects him far too much to not come to his defense when he's in trouble - but for long stretches, Jacky Heung's main job is to make Tiger purely happy for the success Cuckoo is finding, and that joy carries the film for quite a while.

That characterization makes it easy to dismiss Jacky Heung's work as Tiger as one-note, and his simplicity is a big part of the character's appeal, but it's not as easy as it looks - not many people manage the combination of good intentions and the sort of chippy aggression you need to be this sort of fighter - but he gets to play against expectation a lot and make Tiger funny without being the butt of the jokes. Wang Keru is just as funny as Cuckoo (she gets to do physical comedy and dance well), and she gets to hold on to a great deal of anger and shame at being fooled without coming off as abrasive. They complement each other well enough that the story doesn't need to throw a bunch of conflict-creating obstacles in their way. There's fun group around them, too - Ma Xiaohui spends every couple of minutes he gets on screen as Fengfeng looking quietly panicked that Cuckoo will immediately destroy him somehow, and it is always hilarious, while Wu Yitong, a couple seats away as a fellow judge, always looks ready to help though too ethical to do more than give Cuckoo a platform. A running joke with Kelly Yu Wenwen as a contestant ready to sacrifice anything for rock is never not deadpan funny while still letting her be a worthy competitor.

And, on top of that, there's Johnnie To just generally being a terrific filmmaker that not enough people outside of Asia have heard of, and even those that have probably don't know that he's as good at romantic comedy as he is at action and crime. He has a good-as-expected crew working the fight scenes, but also has a great time having cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung move the camera around the warehouse Tiger calls home, having a blast with all the scaffolding where solid walls and floors should be so that they can look through them or divide the screen without it seeming unnatural. Things move fast enough that one is aware of the speed but with such confidence and clarity that it never feels too fast.

It will probably be another year or two before To's next feature, although we should see his long-gestating Hong Kong anthology Septet soon, and while him no longer being able to keep up that pace (or having to) is a shame for those who want more, at least he's not short-changing us in the meantime, but using the resources that come with a Chinese co-production to stretch his limits more toward the grandiose.

Full review at eFilmCritic

12 Hour Shift

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 September 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival (?), internet)

As good as Angela Bettis and Chloe Farnworth in 12 Hour Shift, I'm mildly surprised that writer/director Brea Grant didn't keep either role for herself; it wouldn't be her first time on both sides of the camera and it certainly feels like the sort of part a filmmaker writes for herself. It's a great showcase but it might be nice if there were a little more around it - in trying to create an overwhelming situation, Grant doesn't give any particular thing much chance to be particularly stressful.

Bettis plays Mandy, a nurse at an Arkansas hospital in 1999, mostly good at her job but on probation for previous screw-ups. She's working a double, and it looks to be fairly quiet: Mr. Collins (Ted Ferguson) is in for his dialysis, and he's the most active - there's a woman in a coma whose daughter needs reassurance, a death-row inmate (David Arquette) who has attempted suicide, and an anonymous overdose whom Mandy appears to recognize. Of course, there's also Regina (Chloe Farnworth), a cousin-by-marriage tasked with delivering the organs that Mandy and Karen at the front desk (Nike Gamby-Turner) arrange, and Regina isn't that bright; she leaves a bag containing a kidney on the loading dock and a goon (Mick Foley) has been sent to make sure she goes back to the hospital rather than just running.

Mandy isn't at the center of absolutely everything, but Grant is pretty stingy about following anyone but her or Regina, and at times that's pretty useful: By not giving the viewer the completely omniscient point of view, Grant does a nice job of putting the audience in Mandy's headspace, not really knowing everything that's going on but familiar enough with most of the pieces that the audience is never too far ahead. The downside is that it doesn't give her much chance to let all the things happening around Mandy amount to much; characters and their stories show up for a scene or two but feel fairly disposable, just there for more mayhem at the finale, but not because circumstances put them on a collision course in a way that's exciting.

If one figures that the point is to create an environment where Mandy fits - shunted out of sight with disreputable things just part of the background noise - then all that bouncing around does its job. Bettis inhabits Mandy like she moved in a generation ago, playing her like someone whose work is a huge part of what keeps her hostility at bay. Mandy is not a woman who outwardly struggles with her worse impulses, and by and large doesn't particularly like people, but Bettis doesn't need to underline and boldface it, and makes the moments when Mandy gets pushed out of her usual range more interesting, both when her anger gets the better of her and when she betrays guilt or affection. Chloe Farnworth's Regina maybe winds up on both ends of those reactions, and her performance is a smart complement to Bettis's restraint, a thick layer of friendly stupidity that occasionally gives way to some ruthless survival instincts without the two ever seeming in conflict. There are moments when Bettis seems to be playing straight man to Farnworth's clown, but Farnworth and Grant have a nifty ability to find the point where Regina's tendency toward chaos is right on the line between cute and monstrous without one quite cloaking the other.

There's a nice group around them that doesn't get all that much to do and could probably benefit from Grant maybe letting the larger world around Mandy and Regina step forward a bit: Nikea Gamby-Turner plays Karen as the closest thing Mandy has to a friend and confidante at work, pepping up every scene she's in even as she's carefully written as a work friend rather than someone who Mandy is genuinely close to. Kit Williamson makes what is arguably the film's most darkly comic scene work by playing it light - and truth be told, I was kind of hoping Grant would dig in more into how is shows that most people will convince themselves there's a reasonable explanation to even the most horrific sights; she seems to be onto something there, but there's too much going on. Even guys like David Arquette and Mick Foley, who are often cast to bring a little more personality to characters who aren't on screen that much, can't make their sections of the story feel important enough to really put pressure on Mandy and Regina.

They don't need to, exactly; Bettis and Farnworth are strong enough to carry the movie and Grant ties things together well enough that the film never feels sloppy. If anything, it's so focused on its greatest strengths that it seldom has time to explore the side stories that give this sort of movie a little bit more color.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, September 18, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 18 September 2020 - 24 September 2020

Not seeing any listings for Apple Cinemas at Fresh Pond, so I'm guessing that they got as much as they could from Tenet and didn't think they'd be viable again until November when No Time to Die is scheduled to come out. I feel bad, because I wanted to go see a movie or two there, but I was so busy with Fantasia and NYAFF and then no evening this week seemed to work out. But maybe that was smart? 2020 is a mess.

  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre opens Chuck Berry in their virtual screening room, probably to a bigger audience than when it was four-walled at the Regent earlier this year (after apparently being released internationally in 2018). Filmmaker Jon Brewer got a bunch of interviews to tell the story of "The Granddaddy of Rock & Roll". They also have two new ones tied to their ongoing series, with Killer of Sheep as the Big Small Screen Classic (that also has a Coolidge Education seminar with Robert Daniels on Thursday evening) and the After Midnight crew offering Parasite through Sunday. Note that it is the 1980s monster movie with Demi Moore as opposed to Bong Joon-Ho's Oscar-winner, and they do not appear to be offering it in 3D. They also continue to offer rentals of Sibyl, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, Beau Travail, From Controversy to Cure, and I Used to Go Here.

    In upcoming-but-selling-out programs, there's a four-week course on "Dictators on Film" whose Tuesday sessions are sold out but there may still be room for the Saturday session; they will also be showing Vertigo as a drive-in show at the Medfield State Hospital next weekend.
  • The Brattle Theatre also has a reissue as their new release this week, with Jan Svankmajer's Faust joining their lineup. To a certain extent, you don't need to say much more than that it is Faust (legendary fable about a man who sells his soul to the devil) as told by Svankmajer (legendary Czech animator and surrealist). They also continue Vinyl Nation, The Hole, Ghost Tropic, Moroni for President, MR. SOUL!, and Son of the White Mare.
  • Infidel appears to be the week's only major new release, with Jim Caviezel starring as a man kidnapped in Cairo and Claudia Karvan as the wife looking to secure his return. It's at Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Arsenal Yards, Chestnut Hill, and Revere. The Secrets We Keep also opens at Arsenal Yards, after having started playing Kendall Square and the Embassy on Wednesday.

    Arsenal Yards has locally-produced Spin the Plate for single shows on Friday and Sunday, along with matinees of The Iron GIant through the week.

    Fenway also re-opens Minions this week, because why not. Revere fills its weekday evenings with the No Game, No Life anime (Monday), P.S. I Love You Tuesday), and A Flea in Her Ear (Thursday afternoon), the last two so random that I wonder if there are newer things with the same names. They've also got Sonic the Hedgehog and Jumanji: The Next Level, but I'm not sure if those are "again" or "still". South Bay has The Breakfast Club on Sunday afternoon.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square and Embassy both have two new releases this weekend (aside from The Secrets We Keep). The Way I See It is a documentary from John Lewis: Good Trouble director Dawn Porter that features Pete Souza, White House photographer for both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, who has become a sharp critic of the latter's successor. The Nest features Jude Law and Carrie Coon as a family relocating from suburban America to the English countryside in the 1980s, exposing the stress points in their marriage. It's from Martha Marcy May Marlene director Sean Durkin.

    Both The Way I See It and The Secrets We Keep are also at The Lexington Venue, which is open at least through Sunday.
  • The West Newton Cinema brings Jazz On a Summer's Day to their screen after its virtual run at the Brattle and Coolidge, which is in reverse, but, hey, 2020 is weird. Their website only shows times through Sunday, including Citizen Kane, Tenet, 2001: A Space Odyssey (not showing Saturday), The Burnt Orange Heresy, and Casablanca (not showing Saturday) and Sunday. Don't know if that messes with their curbside popcorn pick-up on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
  • The Regent Theatre continues to stream The Beatles in India, adding Chet's Last Call (the story of an (in)famous Boston dive bar operator which played the theater earlier this year) on Saturday. The "Red Hot Chilli Pipers" concert is available through Monday, with Moody Blues tribute band "Go Now!" taking the slot on Tuesday. There's a livestream of protest documentary We Are Many on Monday night. It also looks like they will be opening the doors for the first of four screenings of this year's Manhattan Short Film Festival block on Thursday evening, but maybe that page has just been on the site for a while.
  • ArtsEmerson continues to host documentary Our Time Machine through Tuesday, including a conversation with artist Maleonn and filmmakers Yang Sun & S. Leo Chiang on the 19th.

    The Bright Lights at Home show on Thursday is Through The Night, focusing on two mothers and a child care provider who meet at a 24-hour day care center (which is apparently a thing now). It livestreams at 7pm with a conversation with director Loira Limbal afterward. It's a part of the Boston Latino International Film Festival, which is virtual this year and kicks off on Wednesday.
  • The Boston Film Festival will be mostly-virtual this year, but is planning three live screenings: The Girl Who Wore Freedom and Paper Spiders on Thursday evening and Small Town Wisconsin on Friday. A number of other films we be available virtually on Thursday, some including Q&As, though I don't know how that's going to work.
  • Asian imports still playing include Wild Grass at Boston Common, The Eight Hundred at Boston Common and the Seaport, and Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula at Boston Common and Revere.
  • Don't know if anyone is at The Somerville Theatre to update their virtual screening room slate, whch still shows The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, Pahokee, and Alice; The Capitol is open for ice cream and snacks, but I don't know if anyone is paying attention to their virtual theater, which still lists the "One Small Step" shorts, the Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time.
  • The Brattle, the Coolidge, and West Newton are all offering relatively reasonable rentals for groups of up to 20; search their websites or call them directly get quotes on rates, available slots, and what the rules on concessions and masking are.

Bummed about Fresh Pond apparently closing up before I got a chance to head over, and I hope the two weeks they were open didn't actually hurt them. Write to your representatives via Save Your Cinema so that hopefully all the other places have a chance to survive. Also, Nightstream is about to announce their line-up, the upcoming online festival put on by BUFF and other genre festivals around the country.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 11 September 2020 - 17 September 2020

How far away is the next local-ish virtual film festival, another couple weeks? How will I handle not having to focus on reduced options with rapidly approaching expiration dates?

  • One option would be Sibyl, available via The Coolidge Corner Theatre, which features Virginie Efra as a psychiatrist who decides to become a novelist, but lacks inspiration other than the tales told by one of her remaining patients (Adèle Exarchopoulos), which seems professionally dubious even if it didn't have her blurring other lines in her mind. The virtual screening room also continues to offer Critical Thinking, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, Beau Travail, Epicentro, Coup 53, From Controversy to Cure, and I Used to Go Here through at least Thursday.

    The "After Midnite" crew also brings Cannibal Apocalypse to the virtual room, although Antonio Margheriti's uncut, fully restored tale of flesh-eating Vietnam veterans is only available through Sunday. The weekly Coolidge Education seminar goes for a rather less lurid bit of apocalyptic fiction, with Clemson University professor Amy Monaghan taking part in a Thursday-evening discussion of Children of Men (not on the theater's site but available many other places).
  • The week's new offering in the virtual screening room for The Brattle Theatre is Vinyl Nation, a documentary on the recent resurgence of the venerable recording medium, including some facets that are unexpected or counter-intuitive. They also continue to offer the reissue of Tsai Ming-Liang's The Hole, Ghost Tropic, Moroni for President, MR. SOUL!, Desert One, the restoration of Son of the White Mare, and Jazz on a Summer's Day. The links for Represent, Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine, and You Never Had It - An Evening with Bukowski are still up, but may not be for much longer, as they were previously marked as being in their final week.
  • With Tenet likely to take up a lot of screen real estate for some time, wide releases are likely going to come slowly. This week's main offering is The Broken Hearts Gallery, starring Geraldine Viswanathan as a young woman who starts an art project to deal with her own break-up but may find other connections as a result. It's at Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, Revere

    Boston Common and South Bay also bring back Black Panther as a tribute to Chadwick Boseman, while the Majestic in Watertown has matinee screenings of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Revere has anime horror feature Aragne: Sign of Vermillion on Monday evening and polar opposite The Bridges of Madison County on Tuesday. South Bay also has Blackbird on Monday; it has a heck of a cast in Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, and Rainn Wilson as a family preparing to say goodbye to the terminally ill mother (Sarandon). That may be a one-off or a preview for next weekend; there's both "these dates only" and "opens September 18th" floating around.
  • Apple Fresh Pond opens Fatima, which tells the story of 3 children in 1917 Portugal who claim to have had visions of the Virgin Mary
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square opened two documentaries on Wednesday, both featuring elected officials from Georgia: All In: The Fight for Democracy focuses on Stacey Abrams and the current fight against voter suppression, while Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President looks at how musicians helped elect Carter and influenced him throughout his life. They also have The Devil All the Time, a sprawling Midwestern crime gothic from director Antonio Campos.

    Two of those will be hitting streaming on Wednesday (All In on Prime, Devil on Netflix), so they're probably hoping that The Secrets We Keep picks up some of the slack. It features Noomi Rapace and Joel Kinnaman as a mid-century couple who believe their next-door neighbor may be a war criminal. That one also opens at the Embassy.
  • Movies continue to open in China with Wild Grass this week's import; it's a 1990s-set romance starring Ma Sichun, Elane Zhong Chuxi and Johnny Huang Jingyu, and plays Boston Common. The Eight Hundred continues to play at Boston Common, the Seaport//, and Revere; Korean zombie action flick Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula adds the Embassy to showtimes at Boston Common and Revere.
  • The Regent Theatre has a few new virtual options this week, with new documentary The Beatles in India starting on Friday and a "Red Hot Chilli Pipers" concert available starting Tuesday. They also have a livestreamed concert with Serge Clivino on Sunday evening.
  • The Taiwan Film Festival of Boston is running a monthly virtual series, with this weekend featuring 2018 Taipei Film Award winner Dad's Suit. The film will be available through Sunday evening, and there will be a post-screening forum on Sunday evening (mostly in Mandarin with English translation).
  • Bright Lights at Home begins their fall session on Thursday with The Dilemma of Desire, a documentary on how female desire is not taken into account much in public discourse. Director Maria Finitzo and subject Sophia Wallace will have a live-streamed discussion afterward. Note that while the spring's series was recommendations and an open forum, this is a live-stream capped at 175 people (which is three or four times what the Bright Screening Room holds). Note that for right now, the Bright Lights Facebook page is more filled-in than the website.

    ArtsEmerson also has a non-Bright Lights film event going on, documentary Our Time Machine, about artist Maleonn building a stage show around his discovery that his father has Alzheimer's. It can be streamed through next weekend, with a conversation with the artists and subjects planned for the 19th.
  • The West Newton Cinema continues full schedules for Tenet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Frankie. Casablanca plays Saturday through Thursday, while Inception, Motherless Brooklyn, The Goonies, and The Wizard of Oz play Saturday and Sunday. They are also offering curbside popcorn pre-orders for pick-up on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

    The Lexington Venue is closed this weekend, possibly open in a week.
  • Supposedly theaters in Somerville can open soon, but in the mean time The Somerville Theatre just lets their virtual screening room slate of The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, Pahokee, and Alice run; as does The Capitol with "One Small Step" shorts, the Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time in their virtual theater, though there are ice cream and snacks for dine-in and take-out.
  • The Brattle, the Coolidge, and West Newton are all offering relatively reasonable rentals for groups of up to 20; search their websites or call them directly get quotes on rates, available slots, and what the rules on concessions and masking are.

I will be cramming as much from the New York Asian Film Festival as I can by Saturday night, and then looking at what I can get off my shelf and maybe doing the thing where I see if I can find an almost empty screen no more than a T stop or three away in the evenings

If you're not ready to go out, make sure to write to your representatives via Save Your Cinema, and check out Nightstream, the upcoming online festival put on by BUFF and other genre festivals around the country.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

Hell of a week to reopen theaters with a movie about a highly transmissible contagion, huh? Who wants this right now, and would go to a theater for it?

Me, apparently. I'll readily admit it's not the world's greatest idea, and probably pure selfishness and foolishness on my part. Sure, I may tell myself that I've mitigated the risk a fair amount - I bought a ticket for a mid-week matinee in the multiplex's largest theater, and because I got there too late to even think of getting snacks, I didn't take my mask off at any point. I didn't see any of the other nine or ten people in the Imax room with concessions either, so I presume they stayed masked (I was toward the front, so I didn't see them other than coming in and out). It looks like I might have been the only non-Korean person in the theater, and make what you will of that.

Is that enough to make going to the movies "safe"? Probably not, and feeling like one has earned a couple hours of extra risk after having been pretty good for the past few months is the way we get back in a worse situation. I can say that I'm creating less danger than others - I live alone and work from home, with no reason to go out for the next week - but I won't lie, those facts make me worry a bit more about what happens if I do get sick and I'm dizzy and wiped out for a month or three. In some ways, that's the scariest outcome.

The funny thing is, I never felt particularly on-edge during the movie. The subway ride from Porter to Park, though? That was kind of nerve-wracking, especially as more people started getting on somewhere around Central. Heck, just waiting on the platform at Porter, I instinctively stood where the fan was creating a nice breeze for a second before thinking it maybe wasn't smart to have air being blown directly in my face. It's kind of amazing not just that I haven't been in a movie theater in five months, but I hadn't even been in a vehicle of any kind since the day after I returned from vacation and spent one day at the office mostly so that I could pick stuff up. Seriously, I went to New Zealand in early March and since then this trip to see a movie at Boston Common is the furthest I've gone in months.

If it helps, I was able to get a fair amount of other things done while I was out that I generally can't get done going no further than Porter. For instance, I wore the last pair of shoes I had out on that overseas trip to the point where I'm not entirely sure how they were staying together by now, although it's tough breaking the new pair in.

Anyway… Peninsula is a lot of fun. I see Well Go is putting it out on 4K this fall and hope it looks amazing. Is it worth a trip to the theater? Well, that's between you and your particular situation, and I can't actually recommend any other person do this. I'm constantly frustrated that America didn't lock down hard, suspending rents and mortgages and paying out some basic income, so that we could stay in and not give the virus a chance to spread. Now both small local places and big companies like AMC are having a hard time justifying staying closed but also aren't in a situation where they can operate profitably. I hate that going to the movies is a bad idea health-wise and not going to the movies is going to push them closer to being out of business. This country really shouldn't be so fragile.

Bando (Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2020 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax digital)

2016's Train to Busan was one of the most electrifying zombie movies to hit screens in years, a rare unique twist on the genre with impeccable, creative action and a pretty terrific cast. Filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho's third trip to that world (including animated prequel Seoul Station) doesn't quite have the same electricity of his previous films, but it's still a fast-moving thrill ride that deserves a better time to get some time on the big screen.

It's been four years since a saliva-spread virus caused the rapid collapse of South Korea, with Army captain Han Jeong-Seok (Gang Dong-Won) one of the last out, driving his sister's family to a boat and passing by a family whose car was broken down by the side of the road. Four years later, Jeong-Seok is an unwelcome refugee in Hong Kong, doing odd jobs for gangsters until he and brother-in-law Goo Chul-Min (Kim Do-Yoon) are made a tempting offer - the gangsters have bribed their way past the blockade to loot the country, and there's a truck with twenty million dollars just waiting to be driven to Incheon, and the four-person team can keep half if they make it. Of course, they're only thinking of the zombies, not aware of "Unit 631", a group of soldiers who have become local warlords, or wild dogs like the family headed by Min-Jung (Lee Jung-Hyun), the mother Jeong-Seok drove past four years ago.

"Zombie-movie heist" is such a great hook that I almost wish Yeon had started from that rather than just picked the getaway car up halfway; he doesn't even really take the time to lay out what skills the various members of the original crew bring to the table (at least one doesn't even get a name before becoming zombie chow). Even if it takes a while to get the full, real cast of characters assembled, though, there's something very enjoyable about having such a mission-focused situation and the epidemic having had a while to settle in; a lot of zombie movies are running off the same template that it's fun to see Yeon play with the formula and as a result break away from the most familiar variations: It's got accidentally-prescient material about immigrants from the epicenter facing prejudice from their new neighbors, kids for whom this sort of life is normal, and the possibility that determination will not necessarily give way to despair.

Of course, that determination can often be the driest part of the movie even if it comes attached to the folks who are the best at action, which is the case here - Gong Dong-Won is one of the biggest action stars in South Korea and he's at the very least a good enough screen fighter to believably blast his way through a crowd of the undead and/or rogue soldiers, but between that, he doesn't have a lot to do but look guilty and determined. Same goes for Lee Jung-Hyun as fierce mama bear Min-Jung - she moves well and you wouldn't want Lee to approach the character any other way, but their scenes are never as lively as those of the villains: Koo Gyo-Hwan's Captain Seo is unraveling as the sort of upper-class officer who is not really fit for actual combat, versus Kim Min-Jae as the sadistic Sergeant Hwang, and Kim Kyu-Baek almost sympathetic as the quartermaster running interference between them. The biggest kick comes from Min-Jung's kids, though - Lee Ye-Won brings constant energy as a seven-year-old who doesn't know that using her RC cars to distract the zombies she scans for using night-vision goggles isn't normal, even when needling her sister Joon-i (Lee Re), a somewhat sour teenager who clearly learned how to drive by playing video games.

And good for her, because if Yeon isn't quite doing "zombie heist", he's got an eye on The Fast, The Furious, and the Undead, with a last act full of car chases through abandoned streets with hordes of zombies serving as obstacles. There's a moment or two when the CGI ghouls seem especially weightless, but it's an acceptable trade-off for how much smashing and skidding Yeon and his car stunt crew go in for, delivering a high-octane finale that offers lots of grinding metal, opportunity for nasty bites, and more than a few chances for Gang Dong-Won, Lee Jung-Hyun, and Joon-i's stunt driver to show their action chops. The film has never been slow, but Yeon piles it on for the finale, and he's got the same terrific eye for how to use the screen and set a pace that he showed in the first Train to Busan.

There's not a whole lot of his early, dark animated films readily visible in Peninsula - it's sometimes hard to believe that the guy who made The King of Pigs and The Fake is the same one who made his live-action adventures - or any moment that catches the audience's breath like a couple in Train, but it's a heck of a ride despite coming out at the absolute worst time to release a movie about a country devastated by a highly-transmissible disease. Here's hoping we get another chance to see it on the big screen once things are something closer to normal.

Also at eFilmCritic

Fantasia 2020.12: Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku and Bring Me Home

This was looking like the final Fantasia post for 2020, because I didn't do great with managing screener requests and was waiting on emails during the last few days of time off. But, last night I got an email saying I had one more screener to watch, so that's what's going on after tonight's baseball.

If anybody reading this manages to find themselves in the same situation, covering a festival remotely and only allowed access to a limited number of screeners at a time, tilt your requests toward the ones that require talking to a third party first, even if that's not the order you can release the reviews. You've got to manage your supply chain, I guess, which is something I've never really had to worry about because I was always there in person and very rarely struggled to fill slots. You've also got to watch what's being added to the list - a lot of South Korean films were added late and I didn't immediately notice, which is why Bring Me Home is the only feature-length film from the ROK that I saw.

It was definitely a different experience, one I'm not entirely sure I'll be up to repeat if Montreal/Quebec/Canada are either (a) not allowing large gatherings or (b) not allowing Americans in next year. It's not the same, and for as much as I am grateful for everything they let me watch - honestly, I am pleasantly surprised every year that they think the numbers my coverage draws is worth giving a pass to even at this late date - the atmosphere is a big part of the experience. If they're doing a live festival but travel is limited, I'll happily show up two weeks early, work from my sublet, and put up with the same quarantine on the return home if necessary. I really want to do Fantasia properly next year.

Including the snacks! I had a half-joke idea of ordering from various local restaurants that had poutine on the menu and including a photo and review with the posts, but I never got around to it. Right now, I'm just really hoping that the combined effects of the never-ending construction and Covid-related closings hasn't devastated the restaurants around Concordia next year. I will be tremendously disappointed if I get there next July and Brit & Chips is gone.

Anyway - Bring Me Home was a pretty good finish if that's how it had turned out, and holy cow, how had the star of Lady Vengeance not made another feature in the time since? That's not even just "getting married and having kids" time - that wouldn't happen for another five years! And, also, how is Lady Vengeance not more easily available than it is? Little streaming, apparently only available on Blu-ray as part of a box set (I immediately checked to see if I had it or not, lest it go out of print). The discontinuity of this year has really had me thinking about the difference between when I started going to Fantasia and now - Park Chan-Wook seemed like he was going to be a much bigger deal than Bong Joon-Ho back then, what we get from Japan has completely changed (so many slick live-action manga adaptations and introspective indies compared to the Miike/Kitamura-inspired madness of the early aughts), and the rapid releases from China have pushed them to fill the schedule with more indies and farther-flung international releases. It's a different festival, in part because we're all different people, but it's still a ton of fun.

Please, world, let me go back next year.

Wotaku ni koi wa muzukashii (Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

Has there been a great "young nerds in love" romantic comedy yet? I feel like I've seen and reviewed a few attempts, but something always keeps them from clicking, whether it be the references being too specific or made-up, someone in the production being condescending, or the cast just seeming too attractive and confident to play characters they claim are outcasts. Wotakoi is pretty good, but still doesn't quite hit the target it's aiming for.

The word "otaku" traditionally indicated all-consuming obsession to the point of withdrawal from society before westerners adopted it to mean being a fan of Japanese culture while younger Japanese people reclaimed it as something less derogatory than its original insulting form. That's how Narumi Momose (Mitsuki Takahata) can describe herself as a gaming and manga otaku but still mostly tries to hide it at her new job, especially after it was the reason her last boyfriend broke up with her. She doesn't expect to run into Hirotaka Nifuji (Kento Yamazaki) as a co-worker; they haven't seen each other since school but were always gaming buddies as kids. It's not long before they start seeing each other, but there's some strain even though they both like gaming - Hirotaka suggests they go on "non-otaku dates", and often feels left out when Narumi focuses on her other fandoms.

Narumi and Hirotaka are both otaku, but they're different types, even beyond Narumi actually liking manga and anime more than games. Narumi's enthusiasm can barely be contained, but she's wary of it; though the film doesn't get much into whether women are judged more harshly than men for nerdiness in Japan, it's clearly been an issue. Hirotaka is less uptight about it but less social in general, and it proves a little trickier to work with: Aside from the story mostly being told from Narumi's point of view, her anxieties being on her sleeve makes her perspective easier to see. Both writer/director Yuichi Fukuda and star Kento Yamazaki seem to have a little trouble showing what's going on behind Hirotaka's stony face; there's clearly a story about someone who wants to connect but doesn't know how there, but Hirotaka is so incapable of expressing it, even during the musical numbers, that Fukuda has a hard time finding an angle.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Nareul chajajwo (Bring Me Home)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 September 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

Kim Seung-Woo's Bring Me Home is such a measured thriller that it at first seems like that's the wrong way to categorize it in genre terms, but that's what impresses about it: As much as one gets the sense of how the characters are stuck in limbo from how it doesn't move particularly fast, it's always moving forward, right up until the something happens in the last act and one realizes that things have gotten pretty tense. That is some nifty, steady screw-turning, the likes of which you don't often see.

The folks in limbo are Jung-Yeon (Lee Young-Ae) and her husband Myeong-Guk (Park Hae-Joon); she's an emergency room nurse in a Seoul hospital, while he used to be a teacher, though he has spent the previous six years searching for their missing son Yoon-Su, who would now be twelve. Though not giving up, Myeong-Guk is about to return to work when he receives a tip that turns out to have been an even crueler prank than intended. It makes the news, though, which is when Constable Kim (Seo Hyun-Woo), a cop on Naebu Island, notes that Min-Su down at the fishing spot matches the description. His partner, Sergeant Hong (Yoo Jae-Myung), says there's nothing to it, but word nonetheless reaches Jung-Yeon, who is not yet ready to give up on finding her son.

It seems almost inconceivable that this is star Lee Yeong-Ae's first feature since Sympathy for Lady Vengeance almost 15 years earlier; she's done some voice work, short films, and a recent television series in between, but unless she's been active on the Korean stage, that's one heck of a lay-off (of course, she's also given birth to twins, which my family tells me keeps a person busy). She doesn't seem to be particularly rusty, either; though she spends the whole movie playing Jung-Yeon as hollowed out but still, somehow, dragging herself through her next day, the variations on it are intriguing, from the way it lends her a combination of focus and numbness at work to how her sleuthing once she reaches the island is a series of relentless baby steps. She spends the climactic last section on a quiet, remarkable roller coaster, emboldened by hope and unleashed when that hope seems to be dashed, but always kind of restrained in how she does it by the fact that this is her first time - this sort of detective work has always been Myeong-Guk's thing and he's probably never gotten into quite this sort of situation - and she's naturally frightened that she'll fail and make everything worse.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 4 September 2020 - 10 September 2020

So that was summer, huh? Not gonna go down in history as one of the greats. Anyway, a couple more theaters open back up, but not the folks with actual film projection. It's looking like we're going to see things get even tighter, as plexes give more screens to fewer films to try and deal with 25-person limits, so releases are spread out (or go straight to streaming services, as with the Mulan remake on premium Disney+).

  • For those who don't want to go out, The Coolidge Corner Theatre has Critical Thinking, directed by and starring John Leguizamo as a teacher who leads a high school chess team from a majority-minority school in Miami to the national championships. They also pick up Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin to stream after its brief placeholder run at the Kendall, with director Werner Herzog doing a livestreamed Q&A on Tuesday evening, and also coordinate Thursday's weekly Coolidge Education seminar (with film critic/historian Imogen Sara Smith) with the re-release of a new restoration of Clair Denis's Beau Travail. There's also a Saturday afternoon Q&A with Epicentro director Hubert Sauper. No events are currently planned for MR. SOUL!!, Coup 53, From Controversy to Cure, and I Used to Go Here, but they are all still playing in the virtual screening room.
  • The Brattle Theatre picks up the new reissue of Tsai Ming-Liang's The Hole, also keeping Ghost Tropic, Moroni for President, MR. SOUL!, Desert One, the restoration of Son of the White Mare, Jazz on a Summer's Day, Represent, Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine, and You Never Had It - An Evening with Bukowski, the last three marked as being on their final week.

    They also have this weekend's 36 Cinema show with Michael Jai White and Josh Barnett doing live commentary for The Sword of Doom at 9:15pm Sunday night.
  • Christopher Nolan's Tenet officially opens this weekend and basically pushes everything else aside, because the number of people that would fill one screen in normal days now requires (at least) four. Still, it's new Nolan with John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, and a bunch of the usual suspects, playing West Newton, Fresh Pond Kendall Square, the Embassy, Boston Common (including Imax and Dolby Cinema), Fenway, the Seaport (including Icon-X), South Bay (including Imax and Dolby Cinema), Chestnut Hill, Watertown (including CWX), and Revere (including XPlus).

    Apple Fresh Pond and Landmark Theatres's Embassy also pick up Bill & Ted Face the Music, though mostly on the smaller screens because it's also on VOD. With those two, The New Mutants, and Unhinged not quite filling Fresh Pond to capacity, they also have screenings of The Lego Movie and Happy Feet.

    Boston Common and South Bay also have 42 back on screens as a tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman. Revere screens last year's great Little Women on Tuesday evening and The Prado Museum: A Collection of Wonders on Thursday afternoon.
  • The Eight Hundred continues to play at Boston Common, the Seaport, and Revere, with Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula still at Boston Common and Revere, with Father There Is Only One 2 playing Revere.
  • The West Newton Cinema has cleared space for Tenet but also has a screen for Ira Sachs's Frankie, featuring Isabelle Huppert as the title character on vacation with three generations of her family in Portugal. They also hang on to Inception (Saturday-Thursday), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Casablanca (Friday & Saturday), Motherless Brooklyn (Sunday-Thursday), The Goonies (Sunday), and The Wizard of Oz (Saturday). They are also offering curbside popcorn pre-orders for pick-up on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

    The Lexington Venue is closed this weekend, with the next "coming soon" films listed for 18 September.
  • the New England Aquarium reopened a few weeks ago, including the Simons Imax Theatre; it's worth noting that the concessions are closed and the films playing ("Great White Shark", "Turtle Odyssey", "Sea Lions: Life By a Whisker", and "Backyard Wilderness" are 22 minute shorts rather than the usual 45-minute featurettes, and I'm guessing they aren't in 3D so people don't have to worry about putting recycled glasses right on their nose.
  • With the crew furloughed, I'm guessing there's nobody at The Somerville Theatre to switch up what's in their virtual screening room, so it's going to be The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, Pahokee, and Alice for a while; ditto for The Capitol keeping "One Small Step" shorts, the Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time in their own virtual theater, though folks are selling ice cream and snacks.
  • The Regent Theatre has their last Kalliope Trio livestream concert on Monday, but has emptied out the virtual room out.
  • The Brattle, the Coolidge, and West Newton are all offering relatively reasonable rentals for up to 20-ish people; search their websites or call them directly get quotes on rates, available slots, and what the rules on concessions and masking are.

I'll probably be spending a lot of time "at" the virtual edition of New York Asian Film Festival this coming week, but may also try and head out to David Copperfield, Bill and Ted, or The New Mutants while holding out hope that the Somerville will open by the end of the month and have a 70mm print of Tenet.

If you're not ready to go out, make sure to write to your representatives via Save Your Cinema, and check out Nightstream, the upcoming online festival put on by BUFF and other genre festivals around the country.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Fantasia 2020.11: Undergods and The Paper Tigers

This would have been a pretty good Sunday, I think, especially if the cast and crew of The Paper Tigers were to be on-hand. The Paper Tigers was also where I got to a point where I was really looking for good, straightforward stuff and prioritized that over some of the trickier material I could have been asking for over the last few days of the festival. You get to a point where you just want to have fun, you know?


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

If the world is going to hell, it's going to hell in different ways in different places for different classes, and they all may as well be living in different worlds. Or at least, that's the apparent idea behind Chino Moya's Undergods, a set of three or four stories that may be set in the same decaying world or may just be stories the people in those worlds tell each other, but who can tell these days?

In a dystopian world, K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig) collect the bodies they find on the streets, selling the live ones to a sweatshop. Elsewhere, Ron (Michael Gould) and Ruth (Hayley Carmichael) appear to be the only residents of an apartment tower, at least until charming Harry (Ned Dennehy) knocks on the door, saying he's locked himself out of a flat on a different floor. In a storybook city, businessman Hans (Eric Godon) is offered what seems like an incredible opportunity by a foreign engineer (Jan Bijvoet), but when he copies the plans and turns the man down, daughter Maria (Tanya Reynolds) is kidnapped, forcing Hans to recruit her artsy new boyfriend Johann (Tadhg Murphy) to help rescue her. And just as middle-manager Dominic (Adrian Rawlins) is starting to curry favor with his boss (Burn Gorman), his wife's long-believed-dead first husband (Sam Louwyck) reappears, and Rachel (Kate Dickie) immediately devotes herself to his rehabilitation from crippling PTSD.

The niftiest trick Moya manages here comes from how he connects these various threads, very carefully creating fictional space between them until the characters in one stumble into another. At that point the audience can be forgiven if they think this is part of a parallel-worlds fantasy setup (and to some extent it may be), but soon characters from the most seemingly out-there portion are just popping up in the most bougie and familiar, and it suddenly becomes a different story. Sure, there's just enough distance that one can construct some sort of off-screen portal between worlds, but the very effort of doing that world-building on one's own indicates that it is probably unnecessary and counterproductive - despite the way each group of characters sees the others as part of some world so unfamiliar that it may as well be imaginary, the simpler answer is that this is all happening together, and may be more connected.

Full review at eFilmCritic

The Paper Tigers

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 September 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

Just about everything about The Paper Tigers is mainstream cinema comfort food, but it's that sort of thing done pretty well: Yes, there are a lot of stock pieces in it, and they don't always fit together perfectly, but there's also good chemistry among the cast, not much wasted time, and a finale that delivers the goods without making the audience wish they'd had more of that stuff before. It's the sort of movie often dismissed for being predictable, although few filmmakers put it together as well as Quoc Bao Tran does here.

Twenty-five years ago, teenagers Danny, Hing, and Jim were big into kung fu, learning from a martial-arts master and practitioner of Chinese medicine who, rather than opening a school, taught those "Three Tigers" and worked as a cook. The friends had a falling-out soon after graduation and soon drifted apart, to the point where they learn that Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) has died just before the funeral. These days, Danny (Alain Uy) works for an insurance company and often disappoints son Eddie (Joziah Lagonoy) and ex-wife Caryn (Jae Suh Park) on the days he has custody; Hing (Ron Yuan) is limping and receiving workman's comp after a construction job left his knee messed up; and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, his trips to Chinatown long in the past. And that would be that, except that Carter (Matthew Page), Danny's would-be rival back when they were teenagers who has stuck with martial arts in the meantime, suggests that this was something more than a heart attack, and Carter's teacher (Raymond Ma) doesn't exactly say his student is off-base.

Where things go from there isn't particularly surprising, but Tran's script is impressively assured in how it follows the template and not too pleased with itself for how it diverts from it. He's got enough confidence in his characters to hang out and wander up a blind alley or two and even kind of make what is more or less a way to kill some time as the audience gets to know the characters and to keep things from moving forward too quickly. He also doesn't feel particularly compelled to set things up in the obvious way, as he introduces Danny in the present by having him not even think of getting in a fight when he has a confrontation. He also recognizes that the film doesn't need to run on conflict between the protagonists or to make people villains who don't need to be.

Full review at eFilmCritic